ATAI Life Sciences, Cyclica team up for mental health JV

Biotech ATAI Life Sciences has partnered with artificial intelligence drug discovery specialist Cyclica to form a new joint venture aimed at battling mental health.

The two companies will use Cyclica’s AI approach and ATAI’s biotech and funding know-how to design and synthesize new compounds from psychoactive seed small molecule compounds (SMCs) to find the next generation of drugs to augment mental health care and combat diseases such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

To do that, the pair have created Entheogenix Biosciences, which will be based in Delaware, to discover and work on both traditional and nontraditional drug approaches—such as tapping into psychedelics—to create better therapies for an area pretty much abandoned by Big Pharma, alongside much of its neuroscience work, in favor of oncology and rare diseases. 

Current drugs for the more severe types of depression and schizophrenia have been around for decades, but there has been relatively little new innovation, despite a growing burden of mental health issues.

These older drugs typically rely on single-targeted drug interventions that, ATAI says, often fall short. Patients are then required to take multiple medications, leading to drug cocktails that can up the risks of side effects or lower efficacy over administration issues. Combining with Cyclica could help find new and better ways.

Cyclica’s platforms, Ligand Design and Ligand Express, work together to allow researchers to visualize the complete polypharmacological profile of a compound and specially tailor drugs to target specific disease pathways related to mental health, all while mitigating off-target interactions.

Entheogenix will specifically use seed SMCs that range from existing synthetic compounds to classic psychedelics (e.g. psilocybin and mescaline) to identify and synthesize new chemical entities that have enhanced effectiveness in both in vitro and in vivo models for mental health disorders.

This could, the companies say, lead to medications “that offer the putative benefits of psilocybin for depression, but with enhanced properties such as faster drug release and absorption or an absence of the hallucinogenic effects common to psychedelics.”

Speaking to FierceBiotech, ATAI Chief Scientific Officer Srinivas Rao, M.D., Ph.D., (who will also run the JV as its chief) was keen to stress that while this JV is working on psychedelics, they don’t want to be seen solely as a ‘psychedelic company’, but rather as one focused on mental health using the most efficacious therapies possible.

Rao said the JV came together in a remarkably modern way: A fortuitous travel plan and a “back and forth” conversation over WhatsApp that led to its name.

“So, I was at an AI drug discovery conference back in May and Cyclica’s CEO [Naheed Kurji] was there; we talked a little at the conference, but you’re pretty busy at these things so not much. But it turned out our flights were leaving at the same time, so we decided to take the same car to the airport and it was really remarkable: We had a lot of interests in common.

“I told him what our interests were and talked about psychedelic compounds, and it turns out Cyclica was also interested in this area, and that they had been playing with some of these compounds already. Then it just became an obvious marriage at that point.”

Rao says that the good thing about the project is that it can get into clinical testing “relatively quickly” as it’s only looking at single doses: “So it’s a single ascending dose trial, then it’s a phase 2a that’s a single dose, so that’s really nice compared to what I’ve had to deal with in development terms in the past,” he said.

Specifics on targets aren’t fully out there yet, but treatment-resistant depression is one “obvious target,” Rao says. “You can take it in different directions from there, like substance abuse disorders; and outside of psychedelics you have a lot of options, so you can also think about bipolar depression and other similar conditions.”

The company will be funded via its parents and will not in the near future seek any kind financial offering, although collabs with companies further down the line, especially when it comes to potential commercialization, are in the cards.